Monday, January 31, 2011

John Barry, 1933-2011

Composer and arranger John Barry has died at the age of 77. You might not recognize the name, but you certainly recognize the music. Perhaps most famous would be the theme to Dr. No, the first of the James Bond movies. That music was actually written by Monty Norman, and only arranged by Barry. However, it got Barry a job composing scores for several more Bond movies, and it's his take on the music that's unmistakably a part of the Bond movies for decades to come.

Barry, however, wrote far more than just the music for James Bond movies. He won multiple Oscars, including but not limited to writing the song "Born Free" for the movie of the same title, as well as writing the scores to Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves.

At the end of the soufflé

TCM is showing Breathless tonight at 8:00 PM ET. It's one of the seminal movies of the French New Wave, but to be honest, it's not one of my favorite movies. To me, it's the sort of the movie that talks a lot without really going anywhere.

Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a thief in Paris of the late 1950s who meets and falls in love with American journalism student Jean Seberg. Unfortunately, one of his car robberies goes wrong, and he kills a cop. He tries to persuade Seberg to go to Italy with him, but winds up spending so much time talking to her that he doesn't notice the police closing in on him....

Breathless is a movie with a plot I find boring, but should probably be watched at least once for its cinematography. The New Wave was about new techniques in photography as much as a new way of storytelling, and in Breathless that's what makes the movie worth a viewing. We get to see Paris as it was half a century ago from a bunch of angles, in crisp black and white. Perhaps color might make Paris look better; see Louis Malle's Zazie dans le métro for Paris as it was circa 1960 in color. However, a movie like Malle's, being in color, can fall prey to the problem of dating more quickly, not having the timeless quality of black-and-white photography.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Artist biopics

TCM is showing Lust For Life this afternoon at 5:30 PM ET. Kirk Douglas stars as tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh. It's an excellent movie with a great performance from Douglas, an Oscar-winning performance from Anthony Quinn as fellow artist Paul Gauguin, and wonderful color cinematography helped immensely by photographing actual Van Gogh paintings. The film is based on a biographical novel by Irving Stone, who also wrote the novel The Agony and the Ecstasy, the story of Michelangelo's painting the Sistine Chapel, which was turned into a 1965 film.

Biopics of visual artists are not uncommon, probably for any number of reasons. The "starving artist" trope makes in theory for a good story line. If an artist isn't starving, then he's probably in the service of a nobleman, as with Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy; the conflict between what the artist thinks is good art and what the nobleman wants is another plot device that makes for a good movie. It also helps that visual art is, well, visual. There's no reason why a good painting wouldn't look good on the screen: Portrait of Jennie proved that, as do the portraits in Laura or The Picture of Dorian Gray. Salvador Dali is one of the artists who famously lent his work to movies because of its striking visual nature; in his case that would be the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound.

Which artist movie is the best? I don't quite know which one I'd pick. Charles Laughton as Rembrandt might be the best performance, but when it comes to the beauty of the art, I'd have to pick a color movie, which would lead me either to today's Lust for Life, or Girl With a Pearl Earring, which has lovely cinematography, if a story that probably has no bearing in reality.

Spanish artists like El Greco or Goya in The Naked Maja have been honored too, although both of those aren't quite as good. Surprisingly, I still haven't seen the Soviet-era Andrei Rublev (the high price of the DVD is an off-putting factor).

What's your favorite real-artist movie?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ernest Borgnine and Anne Francis

The Screen Actors Guild is honoring Ernest Borgnine at its annual awards show this weekend. TCM is getting in on the honoring by showing a night of Borgnine's work. This also includes a re-broadcast of the 2009 Private Screenings interview Borgnine did with Robert Osborne, at 12:15 AM ET. The movies also include Borgnine's Oscar-winning performance in Marty, at 1:15 AM. The first two movies have smaller roles for Borgnine: The Dirty Dozen at 9:30 PM, and this week's TCM Essential, Bad Day At Black Rock at 8:00 PM. That Essential movie deserves a bit more mention because of who else is in the cast: Anne Francis, who died at the beginning of the month.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ministry of Fear

An interesting World War II-era spy movie, Ministry of Fear, shows up tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM ET on TCM.

Ray Milland plays Stephen Neale, a man who has been in an insane asylum in the UK for the past two years. He's just been adjudged sane, and ready for release. Unfortunately, Stephen's problems are just beginning. At a fair, he is given the correct weight in a "guess the weight of the cake" contest: obviously, somebody has mistaken him for the ringer who was supposed to get the cake. Indeed, after he gets the cake everybody seems to want it back; not only the people at the fair but the people on the train he takes to London. Worse, Stephen quickly finds that people are willing to kill him to get at the cake. It turns out that there's some sort of microfilm inside the cake, and a ring of Nazi spies is using the cake to try to smuggle that microfilm out of the country.

Stephen has more problems than real Nazis trying to kill him. Having been released from an asylum, he finds that nobody is about to believe him when he says there are people trying to get him. The old maxim that "Just because you're insane doesn't mean they're not out to get you" rings true. Like a character in a Hitchcock movie, Stephen is forced to go it alone and try to catch the Nazis himself. Also like a Hitchcock movie, the film is filled with dark humor and strange characters, as Stephen and the bad guys wind up at a séance together, among other set pieces.

However, Ministry of Fear was directed not by Hitchcock, but by Fritz Lang. Despite being reminiscent of Hitchcock's earlier The 39 Steps of Saboteur, Lang's Ministry of Fear holds up just as well as the Hitchcock movies. Sadly, it hasn't been released to DVD in North America (although Amazon does say a Region 2 DVD was released).

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Gotta love those '50s soap operas!

Movies like A Summer Place may be overwrought, but they can be a hell of a lot of fun precisely because they're overwrought. A movie with a very different plot which has the same qualities is A Hatful of Rain, which is airing at 2:00 PM ET tomorrow on the Fox Movie Channel.

Don Murray stars as Korean War veteran Johnny Pope,who is living in a one of those 1950s concrete New York City apartments with his wife Celia (Eva Marie Saint). Unfortunately, Johnny was injured in the war, and probably thanks in part to the painkillers he got from Uncle Sam, he's become a narcotics addict, with an expensive habit and a pusher (Henry Silva) he can't pay. He's also got trouble holding down a job thanks to the heroin habit. But his wife, not knowing about the habit, loves him, and he's got a brother Polo (Anthony Franciosa) who is willing to be co-dependent and try to keep Johnny's nuts out of the fire. It's not much, but it's a sort of a living.

This equilibrium is about to be spoiled, however, by the arrival of Johnny and Polo's father John Sr., played by 1940s Fox stalwart Lloyd Nolan. Dad knows nothing about his son's drug habit, thanks to a complex and strained relationship between the father and his two sons that leads neither of them to want to tell him about it: Johnny because he doesn't want to tell anybody, and Polo because he's always felt Dad loved Johnny more than him. It's going to be tough to keep the habit a secret from Dad, especially because Johnny has the pusher coming after him.

Now, there are good movies about addiction. The Lost Weekend, about alcoholism, is excellent, and The Days of Wine and Roses is almost as good. As for heroin, you can watch the very good The Man With the Golden Arm. However, there seems something not quite right about A Hatful of Rain. I think it's the fact that the movie tries to include the family drama in with the drug addiction story. There are quite a few family drama movies out there from the 1950s and 1960s, and they're all a bit over the top, even supposed classics like Rebel Without a Cause. Indeed, I think it's the same thing that makes movies like the Lana Turner version of Imitation of Life things that I laugh at. That having been said, A Hatful of Rain benefits from location shooting: those ugly post-war housing projects, cramped and with the cold, steril concrete stairwells and white walls, are brought out very well.

A Hatful of Rain hasn't made its way to DVD yet, and despite all its flaws, is a movie that deserves at least one viewing.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Joan Leslie turns 86

H,A,Double R,I,G,A,N spells 'Harrigan'Today marks the 86th birthday of actress Joan Leslie, who started her career as a teenager back in the early 1940s. Indeed, she was only 17 when she appeared opposite James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy. In the past, I've recommended Leslie as Ida Lupino's kid sister in The Hard Way, but she also played Henry Travers' daughter in High Sierra, and one of Robert Alda's love interests in Rhapsody in Blue Surprisingly, I've never done a full-length blog post on either High Sierra or Yankee Doodle Dandy. For today, however, just a picture is going to have to do. I'm fairly confident that's from the number where Leslie and Cagney sing the "Harrigan" song, a scene that shows up from time to time in one of the "Word of Mouth" type interstitials that TCM likes to show between movies.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The last night of Hal Roach

All this time blogging about Roach, and I should have included a photo of the guyTCM has been honoring the Hal Roach Studios every Tuesday this month. Tonight sees one more night, looking at the feature-length movies the Roach Studio started making in the early 1930s. Most of the "features" were really designed as B-movies, clocking in at around 70 minutes, but some of them came closer to 90 minutes. I've recommended Topper before; that's airing at 10:30 PM ET Tuesday. As I mentioned back in July, 2009, Topper spawned two sequels minus Cary Grant. Both of those show up on the TCM schedule: Topper Takes a Trip at 10:00 AM Wednesday, and Topper Returns at 2:45 PM Wednesday.

Hal Roach also produced features with the stars of his comedy shorts. Laurel and Hardy were probably the most prolific of these. Sons of the Desert (1933) is the first of their features, and it kicks the night off at 8:00 PM. It's really more of an extended two-reeler, with one big plot gag of Stan and Oliver lying to their wives to attend a convention of their fraternal organization, and then having to engage in ever bigger lies to keep up the first lie. In my opinion at least it isn't quite as funny as it's made out to be. Perhaps better are Way Out West (4:30 AM Wednesday) or even Bonnie Scotland (5:30 PM Wendesday).

The Our Gang folks also made one feature; that one, General Spanky, shows up at 9:15 PM Tuesday.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Love Is on the Air

TCM is showing a pair of Ronald Reagan's early movies tomorrow morning. The second of them, Girls on Probation at 7:30 AM ET, is one that I recommended back when Reagan was TCM's Star of the Month in March 2009. I haven't recommended Reagan's movie debut yet: Love Is on the Air. That's airing at 6:00 AM.

Reagan started his career making B movies, and this is typical for the B movie genre. Reagan plays Andy McCaine, a radio reporter doing the local station's crime show. He's dogged in his desire to get the story about corruption, but what he doesn't know is that the sponsor of his show is in on the corruption. Obviously they don't like it, so they get him fired from the crime show. Andy gets reassigned by his boss to something much les likely to cause headaches for anybody: the children's show. Still, Andy sets out to prove he can be a good reporter, and applies himself with gusto to the new job, befriending the local children, who conviently happen to have too much experience with the local corruption. Perhaps Andy can enlist the help of the children to bring down the ring of corruption....

Love Is on the Air isn't a great movie by any means. Warner Bros. and the other studios were churning out B movies like this on an almost weekly basis, each one intended to be about as forgettable as the next. Not that they were trying to produce lousy stuff, of course; the result is that we now have a bunch of fun movies and the early work of some very good actors. Reagan, to be sure, isn't as good as some of the other "very good actors" who started in B movies, but he's more than fine carrying Love Is On the Air. In fact, his affable persona really helps him here. In real life, a lot of the people who worked with him said they liked him, and even once he became President his political opponents said that in person, he was quite charming. That likeability means his character is imbued with an optimism that makes you want to root for him, and makes the movie relaxing to watch.

Ronald Reagan's early B movies probably deserve a box set. Unfortunately, Love Is on the Air isn't one that's made it to DVD yet.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Repeats and pedantry

Last August, I did a brief synopsis of the Edward G. Robinson film Tampico, and pointed out that it only seemed to be on the Fox Movie Channel schedule once. It's back for another showing, tomorrow morning at 7:30 AM ET. Not only that, but it's going to get shown in February as well.

The Robe is also back on the FMC schedule. It's already shown up earlier in January, but I didn't bother to mention it. It too is airing tomorrow, at 11:45 AM; and will get another airing in February as well.

In betwen the two is the failed biblical epic Sodom and Gomorrah, at 9:00 AM. Right now, that's only listed once on the FMC schedule, but I won't be surprised if it shows up in the spring: I honestly don't know how far in advance FMC schedules its movies.

I also had the chance to have a bit more fun with the Fox Movie Channel at the end of last week when I watched the Civil War drama The Raid (not on DVD, but also coming back to FMC in February). The movie fairly prominently makes mention of events scheduled for "Saturday, October 17, 1864". Now, the very first thing I do when I see something like that is start calculating whether or not they got the day of the week correct. (For the record, I looked it up afterwards and found they didn't; October 17, 1864 was a Monday.) By the same token, whenever they show a calendar I try to figure out what year the calendar is from. There's a calendar montage in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, for example that's repeated despite the parts of the story being years apart, and despite the calendar not being right either time. Worse, one time when I watched A Place in the Sun, I noticed that the Labor Day sequence where Shelley Winters drowns is set against a full moon. So I found myself looking for a full moon calculator on the Internet to see if there was a Labor Day full moon around the time the movie was made! Sad, isn't it?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

I Married a Witch

I briefly mentioned the movie I Married a Witch last October when Fredric March was TCM Star of the Month. It's airing again tomorrow morning at 10:00 AM ET on TCM.

Veronica Lake and Cecil Kellaway play a pair of witches in colonial Salem who get prosecuted by Fredric March and are executed for it. Fast forward 250 years. The witches' souls have been spending all these years inhabiting a tree, which gets hit be a bolt of lightning. This kills the tree and frees the souls, which need something a little more corporeal. Lake finds that one of prosecutor March's descendants is still around (conveniently, also played by Fredric March), and decides to take the form of somebody who needs rescuing from a fire -- and only March can pull her out of that fire.

March does, but there are all sorts of problems for him. The latter-day March is running for political office, as well as preparing for his upcoming nuptials (to Susan Hayward). (You'd think a smart politician would schedule his wedding around election season, but no). The presence of this witch could not only derail his campaign, but also the marriage. This being a comedy, all will eventually work out, although as is often the case with Hollywood movies, the journey is more rewarding than the destination.

On the face of it, you'd think I Married a Witch is little more than B-movie material that happens to have an A-list cast, and in some ways, that's true. And yet, the movie is a hell of a lot of fun. March is one of those actors who isn't exactly gifted at comedy, but is more than capable enough to be the foil for everybody else around him to be funny. Cecil Kellaway is good at striking the jovial note and being the more conscientious warlock, while Veronica Lake is the real star of the proceedings as the witch.

Sadly, I Married a Witch doesn't seem to be available on DVD.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Shame of a Nation

TCM's gem for this evening is a night of early gangster movies. I've already recommended Little Caesar before; that's airing at 11:45 PM ET. James Cagney isn't getting showcased with The Public Enemy; instead, at 12:45 his gangster film The Mayor of Hell is getting a showing. Surprisingly, one that I haven't recommended before, if only because it hasn't shown up on TCM in quite some time, is the original version of Scarface, at 9:30 PM.

Paul Muni plays Tony Camonte, a small-time gangster in Chicago who's modeled on Al Capone, although Capone wasn't really like this. Tony actually started out as a bodyguard to a bigger gangster, but with the big guy rubbed out, Tony decides to become a head honcho himself, and gain revenge the only way he knows how, which is to kill, kill, kill! And when he's done with that, he's going to kill some more!

Of course, we learn that life at the top isn't as nice as it's made out to be. Tony has all sorts of problems to deal with. Not only are there the other gangsters who don't like Tony's muscling in on their territory. Most notable among these is the Irish gangster Gaffney, played by Boris Karloff(!). Gaffney gets it in the end in a bowling alley of all places in one of the film's many interestinc scenes. There's also the henchman Guino (George Raft), who might just decide to stab Tony in the back. And then there's Tony's sister Francesca (Ann Dvorak), who has ideas of getting above her station in life. Tony is protective of her, but perhaps just a little too protective of her. First and foremost, though, is the threat of being the victim of violence, and boy is that threat omnipresent. Tony obviously feels that killing first before being killed is the best strategy (who can blame him?), and the result is a vilm that's surprisingly violent (if not gory) by today's standards.

Which of the 1930s gangster movies is the best? I'm not certain; they're all quite good. If you haven't seen Scarface before, it's well worth watching. It's also gotten a DVD release, so you don't have to wait for the rare TCM showings.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Young Gene Tierney

For some reason, I thought I had recommended the movie The Return of Frank James before, but apparently I haven't. It's airing tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel.

Frank James is played by Henry Fonda, reprising a role he had played a year earlier in the movie Jesse James. Jesse was killed by the Ford brothers, and now Frank wants to gain revenge on them, since the law was happy that Jesse was dead and was willing to pardon the killers after a summary trial. So, Frank hides his identity and heads west to find Robert Ford (John Carradine), who killed Jesse.

The Return of Frank James has some nice things going for it. One, it's directed by Fritz Lang, who is probably better known for suspense and more modern crime movies. So Lang doing a western is certainly interesting. Next, like a lot of movies of the day, there are quite a few good character actors showing up in their usual smaller performance: there's Donald Meek if you know where to look; Henry Hull; and even an almost-grown-up Jackie Cooper as the son of one of the members of the James Gang. Also, this one is in very nice Technicolor. However, perhaps the most interesting thing here is the presence of Gene Tierney, making her movie debut. She plays a lady reporter who follows Frank-in-disguise along to get the story, as the disguised Frank claims to have inside information about the James brothers. Her character was originally supposed to be a love interest for Frank, but that got written out for various reasons, leaving this slightly incongruous female reporter. Still, Tierney is lovely to look at.

The Return of Frank James isn't a particularly great movie, but it's entertaining enough, and fun to watch Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney do their things. The movie has also made it to DVD, so you don't have to worry when the Fox Movie Channel decides to put it back in their vault.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Another month, another Guest Programmer

I don't have too much to post about today, thanks to a nasty surprise. I woke up around 3:45 AM to find that the display on my alarm clock/radio had gone blank. The obvious reason for this is that the power had gone out in the wonderful ice storm that hit this portion of the Catskills. Having said that, since TCM was only showing more Hal Roach shorts all day today, I don't know that I was planning much other than mentioning this month's Guest Programmer, who comes on tonight, anyway. That Guest Programmer is Ben McKenzie. If you haven't heard of him, you're not alone. He's apparently one of the stars of tht crime drama Southland, which appears on TNT (I think; it wouldn't surprise me that TCM is taking an opportunity to do some cross-promotion). As usual, the Guest Programmer selects four movies, and sits down to discuss them with Robert Osborne. McKenzie's four selections are:

Badlands, a dramatization of the Starkweather killing spree of 1959, at 8:00 PM ET;
Richard Harris as a rugby player in This Sporting Life at 10:00 PM;
The Marx Brothers setting off a war in Duck Soup, at 12:30 AM Thursday; and
Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai at 2:00 AM.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Gratuitous Susannah York photos

I've been remiss in not posting the obituary of actress Susannah York, who died over the weekend a week after her 72nd birthday. She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in They Shoot Horses, Don't They, but I think of her in a few other roles.

First is her role as the love interest opposite Albert Finney in Tom Jones (1963), which won a bunch of Oscars, including the one for Best Picture, but gut shut out of the acting category.

York played Paul Scofield's daughter in A Man For All Seasons (1966), another film that won the Best Picture Oscar.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sylvia Scarlett

TCM will be marking the birth anniversary of Cary Grant tomorrow, and kicks off the day with the movie Sylvia Scarlett at 6:30 AM.

Katharine Hepburn plays the title role, the daughter of a widower (Edmund Gwenn) who is living in France. Unfortunately, Dad is a conman, and he's about to be caught, so they have to escape somehow. Dad decides that going to England is best, but certainly everybody's going to recognize his lovely daughter. What to do? Cut off her hair and have her try to pass as a boy! (Yeah, right.) Still, this being a Hollywood movie, you know they're going to get away with it, at least for a while. That while sort of comes to an end when they meet Jimmy (Cary Grant) in England. He's a conman himself, and he suspects something about "Sylvester".

About halfway through the movie, "Sylvester" gets the bright idea that they should go straight, by getting one of those circus-style trailers you see in old movies, and roving around the countryside as itinerant actors. It's here that they meet artist Michael (Brian Ahearn). Sylvia falls in love with him, to the point that she wants to give up the charade. However, Michael has a girlfriend. All is solved, though, when through a twist of fate, Sylvia winds up with Michael, and Jimmy winds up with Michael's old girlfriend.

Or is all solved? The two couples meet again after quite some time has passed.... On the bright side, this is the final twist in a movie that has a lot of plot twists that seem to come out of nowhere. Sylvia Scarlett is a movie that has an interesting idea, but an execution that leaves something to be desired. I'm not the biggest fan of Hepburn, but she isn't terrible here having to do a cross-dressing role. Cary Grant is good, but then, he's always underrated, as is Edmund Gwenn. The film's big problem is that it doesn't seem to know what it wants to do.

That having been said, Sylvia Scarlett is definitely worth seeing at least once. The movie has made it to DVD, but apparently only as part of a box set of Hepburn's films.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

They call me Mr. Cineast!

Martin Luther King Day is tomorrow, and TCM is kicking off the look at race relations a bit early with a couple of Sidney Poitier movies this evening. The second of them is In the Heat of the Night at 8:00 PM ET.

Poitier finally gets top billing as Virgil Tibbs, the black detective from Philadelphia who stops briefly in the town of Sparta, MS, in order to change trains. Unfortunately, during his brief time at the train station, somebody is murdered in town, and when police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) finds out, he naturally calls for strangers with no alibi to be brought in for questioning. Det. Tibbs perfectly fits the bill, even though he's completely innocent. Eventually, Chief Gillespie discovers that Tibbs is in fact a detective, and after a phone call to Philadelphia, Tibbs is exonerated but given a new job: help Gillespie solve the murder, since the police departments in the small town don't have anywhere near the resources or police knolwedge to solve such a crime.

Tibbs reluctantly agrees, and frankly Gillespie isn't so enamored of the arrangement, either. After all, Tibbs, if you didn't notice, is black, and the white political structure of Sparta isn't going to be that thrilled with having a black man on the case. Especially not one from the North. As such, it's particularly dangerous for Tibbs to be investigating, something that's made clear to him over and over.

Rod Steiger won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Chief Gillespie, and to be fair, I think he was more deserving then Poitier. Both of them give excellent portrayals, but Steiger's is a more complex and thus more difficult character to play. Although Poitier is playing on two levels here, having to do his duty but also not liking the obvious racism, it's fairly clear from the beginning of the movie that the story is taking the side of anti-racism. This basically puts Poitier in the situation of being once again the upright black man. Steiger, on the other hand, has to pursue justice, while dealing with his own racist feelings towards a detective who is probably more competent than him (even if only because the big cities have more experience with investigating crime than does a small town like Sparta that probably hadn't seen a murder in years). Further, at the end of the movie, Poitier's Tibbs gets to leave and go back to Philadelphia. Steiger's Gillespie, on the other hand, has to live with the consequences of having let the cat out amongst the pigeons.

In the Heat of the Night, despite some dated views of race relations, is still a great movie, and one that's available on DVD, so you don't have to wait for the next TCM showing.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

About last night

I hadn't seen the movies in last night's John Payne lineup. I am sorry to see that 99 River Street does not appear to be available on DVD. It's fun but a bit over the top. One of the howlers comes when Payne, tracks a man down to a dive bar by the docks in Jersey City, where he goes with Evelyn Keyes. She goes into the bar, and in an attempt to flush the bad guy out, she puts a coin in the jukebox and starts dancing. She doesn't get the bad guy at first, but another man, with the following ripe dialogue:

She: This place is dead;
He: Revive me, baby!

The man happens to be married, and his wife was in the bathroom. What this guy wsa doing at a dive bar with his wife is never explained, but you're not always looking for continuity in lower-budget movies.

Kansas City Confidential is available on DVD, and is well worth a look. The only real problem is the ending, which it seems to me really had to be contrived in order to get around the problems the filmmakers would have had with the Production Code, crime not being allowed to pay and all that.

Friday, January 14, 2011

John Payne and a repeat

Tonight is one of those TCM lineups that I'm looking forward to, but can't really comment about much, since I haven't seen the movies. Lesser-known actor John Payne gets a night of movies on TCM, of which the first three look to be interesting crime or mystery movies:

99 River Street at 8:00 PM ET;
Kansas City Confidential at 9:30 PM; and
The Crooked Way at 11:15 PM.
The last of the four movies before TCM Underground is To the Shores of Tripoli, a World War II movie.

Coming up early Saturday morning on TCM, at 7:30 AM, is It's a Wonderful World. If the title sounds familiar, that's probably because it should be: I just mentioned it on Tuesday as being somewhat like Come Live With Me.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The latest two Fox repeats

There's not all that much on in the next 24+ hours that fits the dual criteria of being something I'd really like to recommend, and being something I haven't recommended in the past. TCM's birthday salute to Kay Francis ends with the 1941 movie Play Girl, which does not seem to be a remake of the 1932 movie Play-Girl. I haven't seen the 1941 vilm; I'd love to recommend the earlier one just because it starts off with a great pre-Code line. (It's not available on DVD, however.) I'm also not terribly excited about tonight's lineup of Peter Sellers movies. Looking over at the Fox Movie Channel, there are a lot of movies I've recommended in the past, but haven't mentioned in quite some time, so I might as well point out that they're airing again. Hangover Square is the first of these, kicking off tomorrow morning's FMC lineup at 6:00 AM ET. Now they really need to bring Laird Cregar's Heaven Can Wait back out of the vault. Hangover Square is followed at 7:30 AM by Tobacco Road, which, like Heaven Can Wait, stars Gene Tierney.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Kay Francis birthday tomorrow

Normally, I prefer to mark birthdays on the day they occur, unless TCM is showing a movie starring the birthday person early in the morning, and I'd like to recommend it. Such is the case with One Way Passage, airing at 8:30 AM ET tomorrow on TCM.

William Powell plays Dan, a murderer wanted by the authorities in California for having escaped prison; having committed murder, he's doomed to be sent to the gas chamber. He's been caught in Hong Kong and, this being the days before transoceanic plane travel, he gets to take a slow boat back to his death. On the boat, he meets Joan (Kay Francis). She's a wealthy socialite who has no idea about Dan's past, or that he's on the boat going back to his death. It turns out, though, that she too is facing death, having been diagnosed with some fatal illness, the details of which we're never really given.

The two fall in love, but each of them has a dilemma: tell the other that this can only be a brief relationship, or keep that a secret and just enjoy the brief relationship for what it is. (Of course, if each knew both of them were going to die, that would change things....) Both of them choose secrecy, and proceed to have a doomed romance aboard the ship.

That's about all there is to the plot, except for the things that we viewers know that the two dying passengers don't; and the fact that as the boat makes its way across the Pacific, we know the two lovers' time together is growing shorter and shorter. It's a story that doesn't sound like much, but One Way Passage is actually quite a fine movie. Not only do Powell and Francis do well; they're helped by a supporting cast that includes Frank McHugh as a conman friend of Powell's, and Aline MacMahon as another con passing herself off as wealthy, reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve.

Sadly, One Way Passage has made it to DVD as part of the Warner Archive Collection, so you're either going to have to pay a bit more, or catch one of the infrequent TCM showings.

TCM honors Luise Rainer

Yeah, another birthday salute. Luise Rainer turns 101 today. TCM is spending the evening with her and her movies, showing her two Oscar-winnning performances, in The Good Earth at 8:30 PM ET and The Great Ziegfeld at 11:30 PM. Hoewver, I'm more looking forward to the interview they're showing, one which was done at last year's TCM Film Festival. That's airing at 8:00 PM, with a repeat at 11:00 PM between the two movies.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hal Roach, Part 2

TCM continues its salute to the Hal Roach Studios tonight at 8:00 PM ET with a 24-hour look at the shorts of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. I think all of us know about Laurel and Hardy, but to be honest, I don't think I've actually seen that many of the shorts that are airing tonight and tomorrow. Two that I have are:

Towed in a Hole, overnight at 2:00 AM ET, in which Laurel and Hardy want to go into business as fishermen, and buy a boat that they have to move and repair; and
The Music Box at 4:30 AM, in which the two are piano movers who have to deliver a piano up a long, long flight of stairs.

Some of the comedy may be a bit too slapstick and over the top, but the movies are genuinely funny.

Predictable, but entertaining enough

TCM's lineup for this morning and afternoon is a bunch of movies all from 1941. One of those is Come Live With Me, at 3:45 PM ET. Halfway in you can guess where it's going, but the ride is still enjoyable.

Hedy Lamarr plays Johnny Jones, a nightclub singer who is also a refugee from Vienna. Despite her success as an entertainer, being in the country on a tourist visa she's about to have it revoked, which she fears would mean certain death, as she'd be sent back to war-torn Europe. The only way around it it to find somebody she can marry. This is a problem, though. She's got a man she loves, Barton Kendrick, (Ian Hunter), a publisher who already has a wife (Verree Teasdale). She meets writer Bill Smith (James Stewart), though, and it looks like there might be some hope for her. He's willing to marry her, and to prove that this is all business, she's willing to pay him a stipend to cover his expenses, which he considers strictly a loan. What she doesn't know is that he's perfectly willing to use the experience as the plot of his next book.

Worse is that he takes his book to Kendrick, of course not knowing about Kendrick's relationship with the lovely Miss Jones (now Mrs. Smith). Worse, Smith finds himself beginning to fall in love with his "wife". You can guess where the love triangle is heading: Bill takes his "wife" with him to visit his grandmother, and she begins to doubt just whom she really loves.

As I said, it's all predictable stuff, especially the whole two people thrown together by circumstance who wind up falling in love, especially when one of them is already in love with somebody else, part. In fact, Stewart did a movie reminiscent of this a few years earlier with It's a Wonderful World. Still, Stewart is always good in roles like this, and Lamarr is not just lovely, she's actually a capable enough actress. Add in the production values of MGM and you wind up with a movie that will never be considered truly great, but will always be good for a classic movie fan.

Come Live With Me got a release to the Warner Archive Collection, so it's availabe on DVD, but a bit pricey.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Bernard Lee, 1908-1981

If you watched The Third Man yesterday, you might have noticed the name Bernard Lee in the opening credits. The name is one that should sound familiar, albeit not necessarily from The Third Man. Lee spent his career playing supporting roles, and would only get his most famous supporting role a dozen years after The Third Man, when he was cast in Dr. No as M, James Bond's boss. The above photo is of Lee (at left; we mostly see his back) and Sean Connery in Goldfinger.

It's a bit unfair to typecast Lee as M, largely because he made so many movie appearances. They're a lot of smaller British films, though, so other than The Third Man, they're not too common on TCM. TCM has shown the anthology movie Quartet a couple of times, and once in a while shows The Fallen Idol. Lee also showed up in spy movies outside the James Bond series, most notably in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (not one of my favorites, but there you are).

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Topkapi placeholder, and a question

It's been close to three years since I mentioned the movie Topkapi. It's not my favorite, but I'm sure there are some people out there who might like it. It's on the TCM schedule again, to be aired overnight (or very early tomorrow morning) at 4:00 AM ET.

When I last mentioned the film, it was as part of pointing out TCM's tribute to Jules Dassin. I went to TCM's site to see if they've announced a tribute to Anne Francis, and they seem to be having problems with the main page. The various headers show up, along with the colored background boxes, but the text that's supposed to go in those containers is missing. And I tried it in multiple browsers. Has anybody else been having problems with the TCM website?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

My kind of town

You probably remember the recent Oscar-winning movie Chicago. Younger people probably think of it as being based on a musical, but in fact, it's a movie adaptation of a musical that is itself an adaptation, of a Broadway play of the mid-1920s. That play got two more-or-less non-musical adaptations. The first was as a little-seen silent (also named Chicago) in 1927. The second was given the name of its main character: Roxie Hart, and is airing tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel.

Roxie is played by Ginger Rogers and is a struggling actress in 1920s Chicago. She wants to make a name for herself, so when her husband shoots an intruder, she's insistent that she'll take the rap. Of course, once she tries to plead guilty, she actually has to go on trial and get off, so that she can resume her career as an actress. After all, the trial is only so she can become famous, not so she can actually go to jail! It's up to lawyer Adolphe Menjou to get her off. Needless to say, there are some folks out there in the press who have an idea what's going on, led by George Montgomery, who also tells the story in flashback. But, since you know the story of Chicago, you probably know the basic story of Roxie Hart already.

To be honest, this isn't my favorite Ginger Rogers movie. She's just too wacky and irritating here. She's great when she can be elegant with Fred Astaire. She proved she could act in Kitty Foyle, where she gives a good performance and won an Oscar, even if there are a bunch of other reasons why I don't particularly care for that movie. (That, however, is a topic for a different post.) And Rogers had already long since shown she could do comedy. After all, there are comic elements in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, but she had actually starred in out-and-out comedies like Rafter Romance already. Still, there's something about the Roxie Hart character here that's just all wrong and not so sympathetic. And it's a bit of a shame, since the story is a good one, and there are lots of great character actors showing up.

Still, if you're a fan of Ginger Rogers, or if you enjoyed the movie Chicago and want to see one of the non-musical versions of it, you'll probably like Roxie Hart. It's gotten a DVD release, too.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Be careful when naming files

Butterfly McQueen in Mildred Pierce (1945)

Butterfly McQueen (1911-1995) was born on this day in 1911. Most of you probably know her best as Prissy in Gone With the Wind ("I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no ^@#$%!%#@$ babies"). To be honest, though, I've always enjoyed watching her in Mildred Pierce, which is airing this afternoon at 12:45 PM ET on TCM. There, she plays the maid Mildred (Joan Crawford) takes in to help her bake the cakes and pies that get Mildred started as a business tycoon. The picture above comes from one of those earlier kitchen scenes, when McQueen is telling her boss that she doesn't know how the boss has the energy to work two jobs. In some ways, the scene is really insulting to McQueen. That having been said, I do find it a bit difficult at times to take McQueen seriously because of that voice. It might be even more off than Jean Arthur's voice, or the one Jean Hagen uses in Singin' In the Rain. In Hagen's defense, she wsa trying to portray ditzy; I don't recall her voice being much like that in The Asphalt Jungle.

Of course, I wrote a post about McQueen's voice on her birthday last year. This year, I was looking for a suitable photo of her, preferably with Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, since I didn't really want to illustrate the post with a photo from Gone With the Wind. I found one, and was going to save it with the name "mcqueen.jpg" -- until I remembered that when I look through the file names later, I might mistake that for Steve McQueen. Not that Steve would have been old enough to play in Mildred Pierce. I suppose he could have played one of the Pierce kids; although a mother/son dynamic would have been quite different from the mother/daughter dynamic between Crawford and Ann Blyth. Perhaps Butterfly could have played in The Blob....

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I'm All Right Jack

TCM kicks off a salute to a new star of the month tonight: Peter Sellers. The first movie on tap was made just before he became a leading actor: I'm All Right Jack, at 8:00 PM ET.

Top billing goes to Ian Carmichael, who plays Stanley Windrush. Windrush is a product of the British class system, which was beginning to crumble after World War II. As such, Windrush is a man who wants to get involved in a real career, much to the chagrin of his relatives, who think the family business should be managing the family's wealth, such as it it. So, Windrush tries his hand at a number of jobs, but finds that he's singularly unqualified for any of them. So, his uncle (Denis Price from Kind Hearts and Coronets) gets him a job driving a forklift for the uncle's company, Missiles Ltd. Stanley's uncle did this with the thinking that Stanly would be a sort of mole within the labor union, studying the workers' habits to see that they could more efficiently perform their jobs. This is naturally something the union bosses, headed by local shop steward Fred Kite (Sellers) don't want.

Stanley takes up both parts of his job, and develops some sympathy for the workers, in no small part because the management is just as bad as the workers in the desire to get the maximum possible pay for the least possible work. When the workers threaten to strike, it actually gives Stanley's uncle a great idea: let them strike, as a strike would allow him to steer a missile contract a certain way, making even more money!

It turns out that in the world of I'm All Right Jack, everybody is on the take. The movie is generally considered a brilliant satire on workplace relations, skewering union bosses. However, it's just as much going after the bosses, and especially those in power, if not quite as blatantly as it goes after the unions. I don't like to discuss politics here, but I've commented in many Internet forums that if we give government enormous power to muck up people's lives, people will go to great lengths to ensure that government is mucking up somebody else's life, and that's really the attitude I'm All Right Jack shows: government is giving out scads of money; why shouldn't they give it to me? In many ways, I'm All Right Jack would make a great double feature with Miloš Forman's The Fireman's Ball. And both movies are available on DVD.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Now that you're fully awake, shut up

Continuing with the movies from Fox, tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel you can watch the enjoyable early noir I Wake Up Screaming.

Like many noirs, I Wake Up Screaming is told partly in flashback. A woman has been murdered, the lovely model Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis). The prime suspect is her manager, Frankie (Victor Mature). Frankie relates how he saw Vicky working as a waitress in an all-night diner in big New York. Taken by her beauty, Frankie tells her that he's a promoter and can give her the fame that she wants. So, she takes him up on the offer, and he shows her around some of New York's fashionable night spots of the early 1940s. Vicky quickly gains fame thanks to her beauty, as well as a more lucrative career modeling and being seen. However, this also brings out the jealousy in almost everybody around Vicky: there's her big sister Jill (Betty Grable), who had been living in the city longer and took Vicky into her apartment when Vicky came east to make it big; various reporters/gossip columnist types who cover Vicky's doings (Allyn Joslyn and Robin Ray); the concierge at Vicky and Jill's apartment (Elisha Cook, Jr.), and even the police detective investigating the case (Laird Cregar). He's convinced that Frankie did it, and dammit if he's not going to prove it: he's always been right, after all. Frankie, having first person experience, is convinced he didn't do it, but can't figure out a way to get the heat off him.

I Wake Up Screaming is one of those films that it's difficult to summarize without giving away the important details. However, it's quite a fun movie, with everybody putting in good performances (Laird Cregar is particularly menacing, and Elisha Cook is creepily almost dirty), and a great dark atmosphere. A lot of the movie is set at night, offering the opportunity for dark sets and the use of shadow, while many of the daytime scenes are set during the police interrogations, which are carried out in darkened cells. Poor Frankie isn't allowed to see who's interrogating him.

If the story sounds familiar, it's because a decade later, I Wake Up Screaming was remade under the title Vicki, and that's gotten some recent screenings on FMC. Both versions have been released to DVD.

New year, new films out of the Fox vault

I've commented a number of times in the past about the Fox Movie Channel's seeming strategy of taking films out of their vault, running them several times over, say, a six-month period, and then putting the movies back in the vault for years. With the turning of the year, a fresh set of movies has been taken out of Fox's vault for our repeated viewing enjoyment. One of the movies I'm thrilled to see back on the channel is Harry and Tonto, which I recommended back in November 2008. It's airing at 6:00 PM ET tonight. This being the FMC, it's got a number of repeats, including one later in the evening, followed by another at the end of January and at least one in February. (I'm not certain how far ahead FMC is programmed.)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hal Roach tribute

TCM is honoring producer Hal Roach this month by showing lots and lots and lots of his work this month. The salute starts off tonight at 8:00 PM ET with a 24-hour salute to Our Gang.

When I was growing up my exposure to Hal Roach was the Little Rascals shorts that had been culled from Our Gang for TV syndication, with Spanky, Buckwheat, Alfalfa, and the rest. However, they didn't come until relatively late into the series. Spanky, for example, first showed up in 1932 in a short called Free Eats, which is airing at 10:00 PM ET tonight. Alfalfa didn't show up until a few years later, and is in only a few of the shorts TCM is showing. Buckwheat actually started under a different name, "Billie", as you can see at 2:00 AM in The First Round-Up. Much of the day Wednesday will be taken with the older silent shorts and, to be honest, I have little familiarity with them, so they'll be just as much a revelation to me as they will be to some of you.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Anne Francis, 1930-2011

Anne Francis and Robby the Robot in a publicity still from Forbidden Planet (1956)

Anne Francis, who played the female interest in a bunch of great movies in the 1950s, has died at the age of 80. Francis might be best remembered for Forbidden Planet, where she played the daughter who brought out Walter Pidgeon's monsters from the id, but I could just as easily have recommended her first in Bad Day at Black Rock, or as Glenn Ford's wife in Blackboard Jungle. Francis was also the love interest for both Cornel Wilde and traitor Michael Wilding in The Scarlet Coat, about the Benedict Arnold affair. And how could I forget a fun stinker like The Crowded Sky.

Francis started appearing more on the small screen than the big screen in the 1960s, getting the title role as female detective Honey West in 1965, and dozens of guest appearances and TV movies. It's well known, for example, that Angela Lansbury, when she started working on Murder, She Wrote, enjoyed the people she had worked with at the beginning of her career in the 1940s, and brought a lot of those names back for guest appearances. Francis showed up three times on Murder, She Wrote, playing three different characters!

TCM has the rights to enough good movies that they could air a night of films in tribute to Francis, but I don't know if they've scheduled a tribute yet.

Marlene Dietrich vs. Anna May Wong

Well, not exactly; the two play characters who are more or less friends in tonight's TCM prime time feature, Shanghai Express, at 8:00 PM ET.

Marlene Dietrich plays Shanghai Lily, a woman who's seen it all during her years spent in China. She's getting on a train to change cities and presumably leave her old life behind, but she's about to get quite a bit more than she bargained for. On the train is Dr. Harvey (Clive Brook), a doctor for the British service who is on the train to see the British consul who needs medical attention. The good doctor, however, had a thing for Lily back when Lily was not quite so disillusioned with life. However, besides trying to rekindle an old flame, the two have more to worry about. China at this time was in the midst of a civil war, and the train summarily gets stopped by one of the local warlords (Warner Oland), who wants money, but is overjoyed to find an important British official aboard his train: he can hold the man hostage as an important bargaining chip.

Such is the relatively simple story of Shanghai Express. As for Anna May Wong, she plays one of the train's passengers, a woman of ill repute who, like Lily, has seen it all, only from the darker side. She's a native Chinese, so she knows when the train is stopped that she's not going to have the same protection her Western friends get, which adds a level of tension to the situation. She and Dietrich are both good, and it's not really fair to bill the movie as any sort of competition between the two actresses. Plus, it's a nice benefit to have somebody who is actually of Chinese descent playing a character like the Chinese call girl, as opposed to Warner Oland in yellowface again.

Ultimately, Shanghai Express is a relatively simple story, but one that's quite well crafted, and filled with an ensemble of enjoyable performances, by people such as Eugene Pallette (playing an American passenger). Sadly, it hasn't made it to DVD, so you're going to have to watch tonight's TCM showing, or wait for it to show up again.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Fox on TCM

TCM has been having more luck getting movies from the 20th Century Fox library to show on TCM. They had half a dozen premiers of movies starring Will Rogers last week, and this week they're going to be showing An Affair to Remember again, after a long absence from TCM. It's a good thing for those who want more variety in the schedule, although it doesn't mean by any stretch of the imagination that TCM will be able to get any Fox film that they want. I remark on the appearance of a few more Fox films mostly because I notice one of them that I blogged about before is showing up tonight: No Highway in the Sky, at 8:00 PM. Interestingly, the title of that post was Speaking of Marlene Dietrich, which is interestingly only because it looks like Dietrich is going to be the subject of tomorrow's post....

Saturday, January 1, 2011

I'm OK, you're OK

Hollywood has made several versions of the Wyatt Earp story, although to be honest I haven't seen most of them. The one I have, My Darling Clementine, is airing tonight at 8:00 PM ET as TCM's Essential.

Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, the leader of the Earp familiy which has a feud with the more lawless Clanton family, headed by patriarch Walter Brennan, although it's really the sons here who are itching for a fight, led by John Ireland. The Earps are driving cattle and wind up in Tombstone, Arizona, which is where they leave the cattle in the care of the youngest brother, who promptly gets murdered. This causes Wyatt to become deputized as a marshall and go after his brother's killers, and, well, you probably know the rest from one of the other movies.

The story here is probably as worthy as any of the other OK Corral retellings; as I wrote above I haven't seen the others yet so I can't make a comparative judgement. This one, however, was able to bring together a very fine cast. In addition to Fonda and Brennan, there's Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, the consumptive dentist who knows he's going to die anyhow so joins with Earp more or less just because. Wyatt's brothers are played by Tim Holt and Ward Bond, while John Ireland and Grant Withers play the Clanton kids. And then there are the women; the proper Clementine (Cathy Downs) and the much more exotic (but more like a femme fatale) Apache "Chihuahua", played by Linda Darnell.

My Darling Clementine was directed by John Ford, who had actually worked with the real Wyatt Earp back in the 1920s. Earp wound up spending the last several years of his life (he died in 1929) in Hollywood as an advisor to movie studios on the "old West", which is how he met Ford and John Wayne, among others. Perhaps that gives this version an air of authenticity in places that other versions wouldn't have, but as always, this is Hollywood, so there are other considerations that come before accuracy.

My Darling Clementine is of course on DVD.